California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
A United States Army Museum Activity
Preserving California's Military Heritage
Historic Posts, Camps, Stations, and Airfields
The Camp Roberts Soldier Bowl
by SFC (Ret) Gary J. McMaster
 
The Camp Roberts Soldier Bowl, as seen from the main road.  The stage and seating area are on the other side

The Soldier Bowl, Camp Roberts’ huge outdoor amphitheater, was officially completed on August 30, 1941 according to building records, at a cost of $6,730.00.  It included a Spanish Mission-style façade backdrop with adjoining entrance wings, dressing rooms and toilets.  An historic iron mission bell from the Mission San Miguel de Archangel in San Miguel was given to Camp Roberts and installed in the bell tower—the highest point of the entire structure.  The giant hillside bowl was dedicated and officially presented to the “men of Camp Roberts” with a sparkling under-the-stars pageant on Friday evening, September 12th, 1941, beginning at 7 o’clock.  Lieutenants Bressen Holtschue and Ross B. Ramsay were assigned fulltime duty as coordinating officers for the event, with Ramsay being designated at the general director.  The officers were assisted by Corporals William Todt and Bert Hillner and Privates Saul Rabinowitz and J. Ross Kearney, all of whom had had prior experience in coordinating entertainment events in civilian life.  The pageant recalled the Spanish history of California and traced the history of the Camp Roberts area up to modern times.  A symphony orchestra, formed of fifty military personnel and directed by Private Murl J. Sickbert, provided the music for the event.  Soldier talent was also recruited for the performance of novelty numbers, and civilian girls presented dancing routines.  The event also provided the newly appointed command of Camp Roberts, Brigadier General T. J. J. Christian, with his first opportunity to address the soldier of Camp Roberts en masse, as well as to give dedicatory remarks for the Bowl’s official opening (although earlier shows had taken place on the stage prior to the Bowl’s completion, including a large camp show with Laurel and Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Red Skelton and others, two months earlier).  Franciscan Father Dominic of the Mission San Miguel officially dedicated the mission bell that evening and provided the prayer.  The pageant was adapted from “Span of Gold,” a spectacle that had been presented in San Francisco in 1937 for the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Corporal Todt had been the stage manager for the original production, and served as director of the Soldier Bowl production.  Entertainers included singers Corporal Hillner (in the role of Father Junipero Serra) and Ida Hopper of Paso Robles, and soldier pianist Benny Rubin.  The pageant that night consisted of three main scenes, the first depicting the early California Indians before the coming of the white man; the second the arrival of the Franciscan Padres and the founding of the mission; and the third, a colorful fiesta with songs and dances native to the golden days of California history. 

 

The iron cross which still stands atop the tower of the Soldier Bowl is first presented to the Camp by a Brother of Mission San Miguel

During the previous month, after conferring with Father Thadeus and Brother Benedict of the San Miguel Mission, Corporal Bruce Elliott, designer of the stage in the Camp Roberts Bowl, had made several changes in the plans.  It had been learned from the missionaries, who were authorities on old Spanish architecture and customs, that flower boxes were seldom used against windows of Spanish and Mexican dwellings.  In place of two large boxes that were to have adorned the stage, one by the bell tower in the back center of the setting and one against the building on the left side of the stage, a niche was made in the bell tower where an article of a religious nature would stand.  A Spanish-type bench was substituted for the other flower box.  The Padres also had supplied valuable information about the correct construction of the bell tower, and the design was revised to conform to the Padres’ suggestion.  Brother Benedict had completed a bell tower cross authentically made out of raw iron like the original old iron crosses to be seen on top of California’s early mission bell towers, and it had been installed atop the tower.  Another added feature was the head of an idol found by Major Russell Duff, Commander of the 55th Training Battalion, while on maneuvers at Hunter Liggett.  A hole bored through the mouth of the idol, which was recessed into the back wall, spouted water into a protruding fountain.  All exposed wood, including the doors, had been hewed, and the walls plastered.  In November of that year, a $3,366.00 stage lighting system was installed, and slab porches were added to the dressing room and toilet buildings the following June.  Colonel F. B. Inglis, who pioneered the huge lighting project, states in the Camp Roberts Dispatch newspaper that it was elaborate enough to class the Soldiers Bowl among the best-lighted outdoor theaters in the west.  Every effort was made to obtain the most efficient and effective lighting equipment available.  It was installed under the supervision of construction electrician Clarence Wedd.  The equipment was purchased from the Otto K. Oleson Company of Hollywood, and brought to Camp Roberts on a convoy of seven Army trucks.  It included thirty large “sun spot” spotlights, two “junior spots,” an arc “follow-on spot,” and several smaller units.  All the lights were controlled by two consoles and one panel switchboard, located in a concrete dugout in the orchestra pit.  Private Elden E. Snyder was appointed switchboard operator.  Stage production at the Bowl were presented under a system that had been developed at the “Met” (Metropolitan Opera House in New York City), with the technical director in the orchestra pit in constant communication with all parts of the stage and auditorium by telephone.  All cues to the stage manager, spotlight operators, and switchboard thus came from one source, eliminating the danger of missed or delayed cues. 

A WWII-era photo of the soldier Bowl stage area with two Brothers from the San Miguel Mission in the background.  The bell is seen hanging in the tower, with the stone face fountain in the foreground.

For many decades, huge throngs of soldiers would sit on the grassy slopes of the Soldiers Bowl to watch events and stage shows of all types, with countless more Hollywood stars coming to perform for them.  National radio celebrities like Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen would bring their show up from the main theater to perform again at the Bowl for a larger audience, Heavyweight Boxing Champ Joe Louis would referee boxing matches on the stage, and motion pictures would be filmed there.  In 2007, a sign was placed at the road entrance to the Soldiers Bowl, dedicating it to the late Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who had been one of the camp’s first trainees in early 1941.  The Soldier Bowl has survived intact into the 21st Century—a mute testimonial to the long and exciting entertainment history of Camp Roberts.

A choir sings on the stage of the Soldier Bowl during WWII, after its completion

 

      
Dinah Shore performing at the Soldier Bowl

America’s ‘Toastmaster General’ Georgie Jessel, with singer Francis Langford, onstage at the Soldier Bowl during WWII, and (above) with other entertainers from Hollywood
Donald O’Connor (left) and dance partner in the closing sequence of the Universal WWII spectacular “follow the Boys’ filmed onstage at the Soldier Bowl
Bandleader Kay Kyser on the stage of the Soldier Bowl before the mission façade was built, with guest stars who included newlyweds Lucille Ball (5th from left) and Desi Arnaz (2nd from left)
Actress Marlene Dietrich signs autographs for soldiers at the Soldier Bowl during World War II

 

The number of celebrities who entertained our soldiers on the stage of the Soldier Bowl is much too long to list here, but the Bowl is one of Camp Roberts’ most famous historic facilities.  The Camp Roberts Museum Director is currently conducting research to find out where the mission bell from the tower and the idol face from the fountain went, as they evidently disappeared or were transferred somewhere decades ago.

An early photo of the Soldier Bowl during construction
A photo of the Soldier Bowl before the mission-style backdrop was constructed
The famous team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy perform in the very first WWII Camp Show for soldiers, onstage at the Soldiers Bowl

 

Posted 25 November 2008


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